Fort Brooke in Julau (before) and now is under restoration and preservation by Sarawak Museum

KUCHING: A team of social scientists from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) is currently conducting a two-year research on forts and fort heritage in Sarawak.

The team, which comprises 13 anthropologists and two political scientists, is led by an Anthropology and Sociology Programme senior lecturer, Dr Elena Chai.

Dr Elena, in an exclusive interview with New Sarawak Tribune, said the forts, unique legacy of the White Rajahs during the Brooke colonial era, were mostly built between1841 and 1941, and served as military posts then.

She said they could be found in many locations throughout the state and symbolised unity and harmonious living, enjoyed by the mixed communities in their respective areas.

Excerpts of the interview:

NST: Dr Elena, what is the main purpose of your research on these forts?

Dr Elena Chai

Dr Elena: These social scientists have one aim — which is to restore the liveliness of the forts by shining a bright spotlight on all the existing forts, and making them a significant heritage among Sarawakians.

We want to put “life” into the forts — by collecting memories of the local people. The forts are already tangible assets which the state government is trying to restore and preserve.

Can you describe what forts are and their significance to the history of Sarawak?

The forts, also known as ‘kubu’, were built during the rule of the White Rajahs since 1842. Only 23 forts have been discovered and they formed a unique legacy left by the Rajahs as the forts functioned as centres of activities for various communities coming together as one or “bazaar”.

Initially built by the White Rajahs to curb piracy and to restore peace and order, a fort was built on a slope or a hill beside a river. It overlooked both sides of the riverbanks.

These forts were built with distinctive architectural designs and materials to suit the local climate. For example, the top storey was wide open to provide natural ventilation for the forts while the lower floor functioned as a storage space for food and artillery.

Not only that, almost all major river networks such as Lupar, Rajang, Baram, Baleh, Tinjar have forts.

Our forts in Sarawak such as Fort Lily in Betong are very different from the forts in England; they were built with belian wood that lasted for decades until unfortunate events such as fires or erosion.

Sarawak is the only state in Malaysia to have many forts. Although only 23 were detected, it is believed many more have not been discovered.

Our team also paid a visit to Sarawak Museum Department to gather information and pictures on these forts, and surprisingly, there are still a number of forts that are not named or detected.

Can you describe the communities that lived in these bazaars or forts, their history and lifestyles? 

After the forts were built, people began to gather and hold various activities there.  Some people started to stay there as they felt safe.

The Malays moved inland from the coastal areas, the Chinese migrated from the main towns like Kuching, Sibu, Simanggang and Miri to the smaller towns with forts while the Kayans and Kenyahs travelled downriver from the upper reaches of the rivers.

Some forts were built before the arrival of the White Rajahs in Sarawak while some were built during their regimes.

The most significant information about these forts is that the local people like the Orang Ulus, Dayaks, Malays and Chinese helped each other to build the forts. These also showed the forts provided employment opportunities and that the communities worked together.

The fort culture didn’t come during the Brooke regime. For example, the community in Lidah Tanah, Kuching built their own fort which functioned as an administrative centre to control activities at their river mouth including the collection of taxes.

Before the White Rajahs came, the local people already had knowledge about the fortified structures. The Ibans and Bidayuhs, for example, knew how to build baruk (ceremonial houses, headhouses).

Out of the 23 forts in the state, how many are visible and accessible? 

Currently, there are 14 forts that are physically visible and accessible.

Most of the 23 forts that have been discovered are located in the rural areas. Some are inaccessible because they are located deep in the forests.

Fort Emma in Kanowit. Photos: Sarawak Museum.

Fort Vyner in Belaga, built by the Kajang community in 1850, was taken down in 1965 because the government wanted to replace it with a government building.

The Sarawak Museum Department is currently restoring some of these and   forts. How is the progress so far?

We are informed that Fort Lily in Betong and Fort Sylvia in Kapit have been restored while Fort Charles in Kabong is still being renovated.

Our government has allocated some funds for the restoration.  

What does your team hope to achieve from your research?

The forts are very significant to Sarawak as they were places where people of various ethnic groups gathered together besides functioning as governance centres.

Hence, we want to promote rural tourism to our people in the state. However, there are still a few tasks that need to be done, such as reaching out to the local people who live near the forts and getting their stories on the forts. With these stories, we can create ‘life’ for these forts.

We call it social memory — that is when one community shares the same memories about the forts and remember the long lost vibrant communities that traded during the regimes of the White Rajahs.  

Our forts are tangible assets and the memories of the fort are intangible assets. These forts are not just part of the official history but also social history.

Once we have collected all these stories from the local people, prepared and gathered enough stories and completed the paperwork, we will be able to make rural tourism come true.

Dr Elena, do you think our forts deserve to be declared as heritage sites by Unesco? Is there any discussion among your team on this matter?

Definitely. These forts are very significant to Sarawak as places where communities of various ethnic groups gathered together besides functioning as governance centres.

We hope that the state government, along with the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture Sarawak, Sarawak Museum, will able to nominate a few notable forts as heritage sites tiUnited Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), and also The International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos).

Here is the interesting part.  Icomos doesn’t just look at the monuments. It also looks at their universal value like how do people access them, how do they remember them and what are their significance to the people. 

So far, in Malaysia, only Georgetown and Melaka are recognised by Unesco as heritage sites. Our Mulu Cave is recognised as a natural heritage site. Nominating our forts requires a lot of work and efforts.

With this, we hope that MTAC reaches out to the local people, as these two parties can have better collaborations.

Earlier, you talked about promoting heritage tourism and rural tourism among our people. Please elaborate.

Back to rural tourism. We all know that travelling is less frequent now due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps, people will start travelling again in a year or two.

Not only that, we also hope that the state government will create fort trails for people to visit these forts.

Usually, people will visit these rural districts when there are notable festivals, such as Pesta Kaul in Mukah or Regatta Festival. However, after the festivals, people will just go home.

If we promote rural tourism, people from the urban areas can travel by road to the forts. It will be like a road trip to visit our long lost history that many have missed out on.

This can also empower local people who live near the forts to be guides and guards at the forts. We can let the local people be heritage managers as well.

We are thankful to MTAC for funding this project and also Sarawak Tourism Federation for allowing us to have access to the photos.

What are your hopes for these forts?

Fort Brooke in Julau (before) and now is under restoration and preservation by Sarawak Museum

As researchers, we are only the mediators. We help to collect and write the history, and then have it properly kept so that our heritage is recognised.

I hope that our two-year research will proceed smoothly.

We want to reach out to the local people who live through the decade like the penghulus, residents, etc, for stories about the fort. We also hope the findings of our study will connect the social history of different areas together with the memories of the communities.

When people visit the forts and read the stories behind them, our people will appreciate and protect the forts. 

We have been too humble. We need to promote our heritage as these forts around Sarawak belong to us. They are part of our history and our heritage.